For four years in France during World War II, Marthe Cohn tried to avoid German forces while helping fellow Jews do the same. Her sister, Stephanie, was unable to avoid the Nazis and died in Auschwitz.
Once Allied forces liberated Paris, however, Cohn was more than a survivor. She became a heroine.
Blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned, Cohn became a spy inside Germany and uncovered information credited for saving lives and speeding the war’s end. Cohn spoke about her experiences Sept. 13 at the Lod Cook Alumni Center, an event sponsored by Chabad of Baton Rouge, an organization that promotes Jewish heritage.
The 97 year old was born Marthe Hoffnung in Metz in the Alsace-Lorraine region near the German border. Because the area had belonged alternatively to France and Germany at different times, she learned to speak fluent German as a child, a skill that paid dividends in 1945.
When the war began in 1939, the Hoffnungs moved to Poitiers, southwest of Paris, seeking a safer haven. When France surrendered in 1940, Jews were forced to register with the occupiers.
“As a Jew, you had no right to go to any public space,” Cohn said. “You couldn’t go to a pool. You couldn’t go to a public garden. You couldn’t go to a train station. You couldn’t go to a post office. You couldn’t go anywhere.”
Cohn and her sister worked to connect Jews with a French landowner whose property bordered the section of France where Germany established a puppet government but did not occupy. Stephanie Hoffnung was arrested after German authorities discovered a letter she wrote to the landowner.
Like Cohn, her sister had nursing training and was the only source of medical treatment in her prison camp. She refused a plan to help her escape, saying the camp’s children needed her, Cohn said.
“One week I went to see her, and I reminded her that her mother needed her as much as the children, and she answered me, ‘Don’t you realize if I escape, we are all going to be arrested?’” Cohn said. “I had never thought about that.”
After a friend provided forged identity papers that did not identify them as Jewish, the Hoffnungs fled to the unoccupied area of France. Her brothers joined the resistance, as did her fiancé, who was executed by the Germans in 1943 in Paris. Cohn finished nursing school in Marseilles, then returned to Paris, and was there when the city was liberated on Aug. 25, 1944.
Her attempt to join the French Army took months because a clerk rejected her ID papers.
“She must have worked in the resistance or underground in forged papers, because nobody had ever had any doubts about that card, and she immediately saw it was forged,” Cohn said.
She eventually was accepted and was assigned as a social worker. When her fluency in German was discovered, Cohn was asked to work in intelligence for the French government.
After interrogating German officers to learn of their retreat plans, Cohn was made a spy. Her cover story was that she was a nurse trying to find her fiancé. After more than a dozen failed attempts to slip her across the border in Alsace, she was sent to Switzerland, where she was successful.
She joined Germans soldiers walking along a road. One had been wounded on the Russian front and was being sent to the Siegfried line fortifications along the border with France.
“As we walked, I walked next to him,” Cohn said. “He said he could smell a Jew a mile away. At that moment, he must have had a very bad smell.
“As we walked, he was telling us all of the atrocities the SS was committing on the eastern front. On the western front, we had enough atrocities, but it was nothing compared to what occurred on the eastern front.”
She learned that the German Army was abandoning the Siegfried line, which she immediately recognized as important. She headed west until she found an Allied tank coming up the road. To get it to stop, she stood in the middle of the road and raised her right hand in the ‘V’ symbol made famous by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“Because I am extremely, extremely lucky, the tank did not crush me, and I asked for the officer in charge to come down and talk to me. I was quite assertive, I must say,” Cohn said. “I found out to my great luck it was the French Army that invaded. If an English-speaking army would have invaded … I could not have communicated with them.”
After passing along the information, Cohn returned to Germany and found German soldiers who said them they were going to escape to Austria to avoid capture.
“I was complaining that our German Army was not defending as much as they should anymore,” Cohn said. “The colonel said to me, ‘Don’t be so despairing. The war is not ended.’ He told me exactly where a remnant of the German Army was hidden in ambush in the Black Forest waiting for the Allied armies.”
Cohn slipped across the Swiss border to relay that information. Since the war ended, she received France’s Médaille Militaire, an award also given to Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Three years ago, she received Germany’s highest honor, the Cross of the Order of Merit.
After the war, Cohn returned to France to pursue a career as a nurse, but in 1956, while studying in Geneva, she met an American medical student, Major L. Cohn. Within three years, they were married and moved to the U.S. Now both retired, they live in Palos Verdes, California.